Islamic State militants have captured Palmyra, a 4,000-year-old city that the terrorists are likely to pillage in the coming days.
The city, which has survived hundreds of generations of human civilization, fell on Wednesday after less than a week of fighting between Islamic State and government security forces. Palmyra also houses one of President Bashar Assad’s most infamous torture and prison facilities. In a last-ditch attempt to protect the city, the government reportedly freed prisoners to form additional defenses, some of them held in Syrian government custody since the 1970s.
By nightfall, Islamic State was distributing bread in the city’s streets. Graphically violent photographs from Palmyra also surfaced via the group’s usual online channels, of beheaded men lying in pools of their own blood.
As government forces withdrew from the city and adjacent highways, its propaganda channels spread the false news that they had helped evacuate all of Palmyra’s civilians. One resident told The Daily Beast that he feared “this was to lay the groundwork for an imminent bombing raid that will make no distinction” between residents and militants.
Palmyra is a key hub for the roads and pipelines that cross the mostly-deserted eastern provinces of Syria, including those that reach the more populous west. By capturing the city, Islamic State extends its grasp to over 50 percent of the country’s territory, and positions itself for the potential capture of other major cities.
The conquest of Palmyra is the group’s second major territorial gain in a week. The Iraqi city of Ramadi fell on Sunday with limited resistance from Iraqi security forces, in an echo of last year’s humiliating conquests in Mosul and other cities. (RELATED: ISIS Gains Control Over Govt Buildings And Mosque In Key Iraqi City)
Outside of Syria, many have spent weeks fearing the news of Palmyra falling into Islamic State’s hands. Since coming to prominence last year, the group has destroyed countless historical monuments in Syria and Iraq, especially Christian and pagan ones that predate Islam.
But highlighting its hypocrisy, rather than destroying everything that it says is a sign of idolatry or impiety, the group smuggles and sells countless small artifacts that it pillages from churches, museums and archeological sites. (RELATED: ‘Operation Mummy’s Curse’ Returns Smuggled Treasures To Egypt)
As one of the most well-preserved ancient sites in the Middle East, Palmyra’s ancient ruin was a major Syrian tourist destination before the country’s civil war broke out in 2011. In the days leading up to the raid, Syrian government workers were reportedly scrambling to pack up the priceless contents of the museum adjacent to the site, and evacuate them from the city.
The site’s pagan temples and statues predate even the colonization of Syria by the Romans, hailing back to the ancient Assyrians and other Middle Eastern peoples.
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